Maybe the best summary of Mykki Blanco’s raison d’être comes from Blanco herself. In an interview on Youtube, she responds to a question about acceptance by mainstream hip-hop by stating, “I didn’t come to be accepted, I came to be visible.” Mykki Blanco is a person, the creation of rapper/poet/artist Michael Quattlebuam Jr., but Mykki Blanco is also an assertion, an argument, and a war call. An openly queer, black, Jewish MC who performs in rudimentary drag reminiscent of the gender terrorism of Vaginal Davis, Blanco is the consummate outsider, a character whose presence in major rap circles sometimes feels remarkable. But on her debut album Mykki, Blanco offers the most compelling argument yet that she may not be an outsider for long.
Calling Mykki a debut seems counterintuitive. Blanco has, after all, existed in the public consciousness since releasing Mykki Blanco and the Mutant Angels, her 2012 debut EP. The next four years saw the release of another two EPs as well as two official mixtapes and a number of collaborations. Blanco is also widely regarded as one of the most singular and technically proficient performers in the recent wave of openly queer rappers (though she shies away from the “queer hip-hop” label). Calling her an icon doesn’t seem unwarranted.
But things have changed since her last releases. For one, she created Dogfood Music Group, an imprint of Berlin’s !K7 Records, who released Mykki. The benefits of having access to a label’s resources are obvious. The songwriting is thoughtful and mature, the result of both Blanco’s growth as an MC and the added time to write and record. Blanco also seems to have experienced a great deal of personal growth. Last year she publicly came out as HIV-positive in a Facebook post, and almost quit rapping before regrouping for the recording of Mykki.
The album’s position as an introduction to an artist we already know could make it seem superfluous, or at the very least like a retread. Instead, Blanco has opted to forgo much of her established sonic landscape and forge a new realm altogether. The slick, expansive production nestles itself in a sweet spot between experimentalism and romance, and drops the listener into a spacious, meditative wonderland that transfigures the blunt rage of Gay Dog Food into sinuous malice. Mykki becomes something more akin to a mission statement than an introduction, tracing the journey of an artist fully in control of her own powers.
Album opener “I’m In a Mood” sets the scene–a bleary, drugged-out Mykki swirls over expansive synths and an unfeeling drum machine, slurring ominously. Blanco is angry and alone, alternating between fury, melancholy as she searches for love and acceptance. The burden of her identity frustrates her desires.
This is more or less the trajectory of Mykki’s first half, through the neo-soul inflection of “Loner,” which features vocals by Chicago singer Jean Deaux, and the sprawling “High School Never Ends,” featuring production by Woodkid, who enlisted the Paris Opera to record the strings. “High School Never Ends” is one of the greatest and most ambitious pieces of music Blanco has ever created, five minutes of meditative verses that alternate between agitation and sorrow, underpinned by lush, symphonic instrumentals. The placement of such a climactic moment so close to the beginning of the album is an awkward decision though, and no other track manages to approach its heights
“My Nene,” at first seems like a break for levity. Blanco raps in a higher register, bragging about a significant other she refers to as her “Nene”. Around the 1:30 mark however, Blanco explodes suddenly into a fit that reads like an all-caps text from a dysfunctional relationship– “Why the fuck is you likin’ pics?/ Text me back, who the fuck is this?” and later “Baby sorry, I take it back/ Fuck you, shit, I don’t want your ass.” Blanco’s willingness to create these violent musical and emotional shifts endows the songs on Mykki with the qualities of real human thought–messy, poignant, sometimes contradictory.
If the latter half of Mykki shakes off some of the melancholy, it also loses some of the focus. Blanco spends less time dwelling on her pain and moves toward self-acceptance but the arc of her narrative gets lost amongst the party tracks.
Honestly though, many of the songs on the latter half are wonderful all on their own. “You Don’t Know Me,” addresses the fallout from Blanco’s decision to come out as HIV-positive last year. “For The Cunts” is pure ballroom-infused bubblegum rap, all four-on-the-floor drum and baby voices. “Rock N Roll Dough” is a tale of queer survival.
Overall, the album is a triumph. In Mykki, Blanco presents herself as a vital, fully realized artist. Blanco’s presence still feels remarkable, but now so does her music. The release of such a polished, deeply personal debut, suggests that maybe Mykki Blanco won’t have to settle–she can be visible and accepted.